It’s become clear that we’re entering the era of the hybrid workforce. According to Cisco’s 2021 Hybrid Work Index, 64% of workers agree that the ability to work from anywhere versus coming into the office every day affects their decision to stay at or leave a job. There is also a push to ensure that end user experiences are good (i.e., meeting business and user expectations) and consistent irrespective of location. In fact, 76% of surveyed workers reported expecting as much when connecting to or accessing resources and applications regardless of whether they’re in-office or remote.
Have a look at Cisco’s new Hybrid Work Index
End-user computing environments are also becoming more complex and more diverse than we anticipated before the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing the number of applications distributed across different locations in multiple and varied user environments. As such, we’re now facing new and additional management, monitoring, visibility, and security challenges. Naturally, we’ll need to overcome them if the hybrid workforce is to be successful.
Technology will play a pivotal role in enabling employees of the hybrid workforce to perform their duties. The following is a three-step approach that will help you transform your centralized workforce model and working environment into a decentralized one ready for hybrid working. Applying this methodology can save you time and spare you from a lot of unnecessary headaches. And though detailed as a three-step process, we ask that you treat its design as a cyclical continuous improvement approach where step three provides the opportunity to input criteria back into step one and so on for best results.
Step 1: Planning
The planning stage of transformation can include tasks as fundamental as identifying which apps are relevant, defining who will use them, and determining how they will use them and from where.
Start by baselining your environment. Doing this will help you understand the technology you have in place today and whether it meets your current business requirements along with the performance expectations of your workers, whether they are campus or home-based. It would help if you also benchmarked any applications you are considering, such as new collaboration apps or alternate applications favored by the workforce. That way, you can ascertain the performance of those pre-deployed apps across your environment and assess their suitability for your organization, all while providing an opportunity to fine-tune and set expectations before rollout.
Next, benchmark current user experiences. Learn what apps are being used and understand how end users are using them. Get a sense of their dependencies, including the locations they are served and by whom, and where employees use them. You can then apply this information toward planning and designing aspects of your hybrid work environment, such as SASE requirements.
To determine if your current security configuration is impacting user experiences in any way, either positively or negatively, you’ll require insights. Only with insights can you correlate the relationships between your apps’ performance and your existing security.
If applied correctly, key performance indicators (KPIs) can provide a tangible indication of a successful transition towards a more permanent hybrid workforce. And by defining your KPIs as you move through the planning process, you establish a great platform to move through the next two steps. For instance, outline what constitutes “good” in terms of business requirements for your hybrid work environment, from benchmarks such as app availability and responsiveness to worker productivity.
Before we move on to Step 2, here are a few things to be mindful of during the planning stage. First, it’s often the case that not every required business app gets baselined. That may be because it is either not believed to be business-critical or perceived to be hard to baseline as the organization does not own it, making instrumentation of the application infrastructure more challenging. We recommend that you baseline each one, though this doesn’t necessarily have to be in one hit. But it would be best if you start by targeting those considered critical to the business. After all, how else will you be able to determine hybrid environment success after your transformation?
Second, don’t baseline your apps in atypical conditions, such as bypassing the VPN, if your organization mandates its use. To get an accurate baseline, be certain you are assessing typical user conditions. Also, be sure to baseline proposed apps and seldom used apps. By baselining only frequently used apps, you could miss an opportunity to improve business-critical apps commonly avoided by users because of poor performance.
Finally, don’t just adjust your user experience expectations to meet your baseline. Instead, consider remediation efforts that might improve experiences and ultimately improve your business.
Step 2: Deployment
The deployment stage is a bit more involved, and you may use either a CI/CD methodology, a canary node deployment, or potentially both. With these approaches, you can deploy your systems, services, and security while simultaneously remediating, optimizing, and verifying your KPIs, component governance, app dependencies, and policies.
You can verify end-to-end service delivery, including any security impacts, by using synthetic and real user data to understand better what users will experience, despite their disparate and diverse locations and environments.
You can also engage in ongoing remediation, optimization, or a combination thereof to prevent surprises and roll out your full deployment with greater confidence. Because the process is circular, you can also expand this stage to include any new releases, functional additions, patch verifications, or other changes on future cycles.
Once again, a few things to look out for during the deployment phase. First, don’t try to do everything at once. Some companies apply all their changes and deployments in one fell swoop, which never works out well. This “light switch” approach makes it difficult to see which change impacted overall performance and if one of the changes had a knock-on effect on another application through a shared dependency. Other companies sometimes fail to mitigate or remediate existing issues, or bottlenecks, before deploying into their new environment. You’ll get better results if you iron out the wrinkles first.
Another pitfall to beware of—and this is a big one—is trying to impose a centralized, or legacy, monitoring approach on a highly distributed and disbursed architecture. In other words, trying to do things the same old way despite operating in a new environment. This won’t succeed. Nor will attempting to view end-user activity in isolation without considering the many components and local dependencies that often impact worker satisfaction and productivity.
Step 3: Operation
Our third step is the ongoing operation and maintenance of your hybrid work environment. In this stage, you continuously monitor and verify the end-to-end performance of your service delivery chain and proactively notify the accountable parties whenever a performance issue arises. You can also turn the data points and criteria collected in this step into feedback for step one.
This stage could be considered a continuation of the baselining in step one, allowing you to leverage the information collected to proactively monitor your entire service delivery chain, from your data center and hosted SaaS apps, through every node, gateway, and hop across the Internet, to your local service providers and remote working environments. If a bottleneck or performance issue occurs, proactively alert the third-party vendor responsible for resolving the problem. At the same time, you can gain insight into conditions occurring within the Internet. Alerting on Internet conditions that could negatively impact your hybrid workforce’s productivity enables you to mitigate issues proactively.
Next, tune components and identify areas for improvement relevant to both your baseline and collective KPIs. Here, you’ll also be able to identify and benchmark new and alternate applications, such as SaaS applications you don’t currently consider corporate apps but that your workers have opted to use.
Application reporting is equally essential. Hence, we recommend you generate dynamic reports that provide non-technical stakeholders insight into your hybrid workforce performance.
The pitfalls to avoid during the operational stage are numerous. First up is the “set it and forget it” mentality. The hybrid workplace is not a static environment, and you shouldn’t treat it as such. Instead, you need to take a holistic view of the complete delivery environment. And beware of non-connected dependencies within the Internet that may not appear to have a direct correlation with your service delivery chain but can, however, adversely impact your hybrid workforce. Other pitfalls include failing to provide quantifiable visibility to non-technical stakeholders and failing to predefine your action plan to mitigate and escalate performance issues. All three of these things can create avoidable problems.
For those thinking that strict app restrictions might be the solution, think again. Imposing strict restrictions on which applications employees can and cannot use might be problematic for morale and productivity. And while it may seem tricky to offer blanket support for all applications, users will typically migrate to the best offering or approach for their personal needs. Admittedly, this market force does leave you blind and unable to support an application that you do not know is being used. But simply blaming the network is not enough. So, a monitoring solution needs to be in place to identify fault domains quickly and accurately without making the definition too broad or ambiguous, as that may lead you down the wrong path, subsequently delaying resolution.
So, there you have it—the essential checklist for planning, deploying, and operating your hybrid work environment with the visibility necessary to ensure the performance that keeps your entire workforce happy and productive. Of course, there’s plenty more to know about the technology involved and the challenges you may encounter. But that’s all I can squeeze into this blog.